by Matt, April 2022
If you’re like me, you love a scenic drive! I like hiking and horseback riding, but if I can get incredible scenery from a car, I’ll take that too!
Luckily, the West is full of scenic drives. Capitol Reef National Park is no exception!!
Here are the four drives you need to know about if you visit Capitol Reef.
Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
Estimated driving time: 20 minutes (one-way)
This is the main road in the center (and most visited) section of the park.
It is a dead-end road, so you must return the way you came in.
It’s about 10 miles long, but the last two miles are a dirt road through a section called Capitol Gorge.
After you leave the visitor center, you’ll pass Fruita and the Fruita campground. Then you’ll see a pay station. Here’s where you pay your park entry fee if you haven’t already.
It’s not staffed by a ranger – it’s the honor system. So, please be on your honor.
If you have an America the Beautiful Pass, you do NOT need to pay here, because your pass works for entry to all the parks. If you need to buy a park pass, you can do so in the visitor center.
It’s actually nicer driving back towards the visitor center because you can see the high canyon walls in the town of Fruita.
Also, it’s amazing at sunset!
Capitol Gorge (the last two miles) is the best section of the road, as you travel through a white rock gorge with high canyon walls around you.
NOTE: RVs longer than 27 feet aren’t allowed.
There is one offshoot on this road: the Grand Wash Road. Like Capitol Gorge, it is a dirt road that travels through a canyon, but the road is much shorter and less impressive than Capitol Gorge. It leads to the trailhead for the Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch trails.
Estimated driving time: 5-10 minutes.
This road actually cuts through Capitol Reef National Park and is the main highway connecting the towns of Torrey and Hanksville.
You do not need to pay a park entry fee to travel on this road, as it is the main highway in this area and only about six miles of the road are in the national park.
This road is actually more interesting than the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive (minus Capitol Gorge).
It provides tall red rock and white rock walls, with views of some of the best formations in the park.
Capitol Dome was so named because it looks like the dome of the United States Capitol building.
Although this is a short drive through the park, it has some interesting stops along the road:
- The Fruita Schoolhouse, where school was taught and church was held back when this was a town.
- The Petroglyphs, an interesting stop where you can see petroglyphs over 1,000 years old.
- The Hickman Bridge trailhead, a 2-mile hike providing wonderful views and a large arch.
- The Behunin Cabin, a historic building that a family lived in back with this was a town.
Loop the Fold
Estimated driving time: 5-6 hours
This drive circles through the Waterpocket Fold section of the park. See our Capitol Reef Trip Planner for an overview of the sections of the park.
It is over 100 miles long and travels through some incredible scenery.
It is actually a combination of 4 roads that, when linked together, circles the southern portion of the park and returns to the visitor center.
The four roads that make up the loop are:
- Notam-Bullfrog Road
- Burr Trail Road
- Route 12
- Highway 24 (mentioned above)
There’s a dirt road section in the middle that is about 25 miles long. It is graded for cars but can be a little bumpy at times.
You can drive to the dirt road from either direction and turn around if you’d like, but you’d miss out on the highlight of the drive: the Burr Trail Switchbacks, which climb the Waterpocket Fold.
The full Loop the Fold drive is typically done in a clockwise loop, though it could be done either way. I did this clockwise because the brochure recommended it (see below).
Doing it clockwise makes sense because the scenery seems to start slow and build to a climax.
Doing it clockwise means climbing up the Burr Trail Switchbacks. Doing it counterclockwise would take you down the switchbacks. Honestly, I’m not sure which experience would be better – approaching them from the top would be a thrill. But climbing them provided its own thrill as well. Either way, I guess.
I HIGHLY recommend buying the Loop the Fold booklet for $3 from the visitor center before going because it will highlight stops to make.
These stops are not marked anywhere along the road, and they provided a lot of enjoyment for us on the drive, such as the petrified oysters we found.
After the Burr Trail Switchbacks (if you’re going clockwise) is a 2-mile spur road called Upper Muley Twist Canyon. This is a very rough, narrow dirt road.
It leads to a trailhead where you can hike a mile to the Strike Valley Overlook.
I drove this in my Toyota Sequoia and thought this road would be doable. I quickly ran into much more rugged terrain than I expected, and had to decide whether to plow through or not.
I decided not. Maybe the road got more tame, but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck on a brutal road and damaging my vehicle.
My understanding is that this overlook is incredible and totally worth it. So if you are
more daring than me, or you have a Jeep or higher clearance vehicle than mine, do it!
After the Upper Muley Canyon Twist dirt road, you’ll leave Capitol Reef and enter Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Here you’ll drive through Long Canyon, a really beautiful red rock canyon with towering walls on both sides.
In Long Canyon, you can stop at Singing Canyon, a little side canyon that echoes (or “sings”) when you talk.
A viewpoint overlooking Long Canyon follows.
You’ll end the Burr Trail Road at Boulder, Utah. This tiny town boasts some famous places to eat: Hell’s Backbone Grill, Burr Trail Grill, and Sweetwater Kitchen.
Seriously, make sure to eat in Boulder!
Next, you’ll take Route 12 back to Torrey. Scenic Route 12 is an All-American Road and is incredibly scenic in its own right. Make sure to check out our article about the best things to do along Utah’s Scenic Route 12.
The whole road extends from Bryce Canyon to Torrey, so this is the last section of the road.
It goes over Boulder Mountain and provides some really great overlooks of Capitol Reef below and the Henry Mountains in the background.
At Torrey, you can turn right on Highway 24 to go back to the visitor center and complete the loop.
Cathedral Valley Loop
Estimated driving time: 6-8 hours for the full loop, or 3 hours for a partial drive.
This drive is an all-day drive on a very bumpy dirt road through a section of the park called Cathedral Valley
This loop is technically two roads: Harnet Road and Cathedral Valley Road.
Like the Loop the Fold drive, much of this drive is outside the park
This road is rougher than the dirt road section of the Burr Trail, which is graded.
I would love to do the full loop, but I had a Sequoia full of 8 people and was not about to put them through a bumpy 8-hour ride!
So I only drove to the Temples of the Sun and Moon.
From the visitor center, this is about 1.5 hours. It requires driving on the dirt road for 15 miles (one way) to get to the Temples.
This road also passes some quirky formations known as the Bentonite Hills.
These hills are purple, white, and red and they are often referred to as Mars, or Neo-mars.
I don’t know that I would call the scenery on this road “beautiful,” but maybe “bizarrely scenic.” It’s a strange landscape that you won’t find anywhere else.
Personally, I loved it. I felt I was almost on another planet or something.
Some day I’ll get back to do the full drive, and when I do, I’ll use the Cathedral Valley Loop brochure from the visitor center, just like I did with the Loop the Fold drive.
Anything Else I Should Know?
Planning a trip to a national park can be overwhelming and time-consuming! If you haven’t heard by now, we offer a must-have Capitol Reef National Park Itinerary and Audio Guide, as well as other locations. Let us take the planning out of your hands.
Our travel guides will provide you with a daily (yet flexible) itinerary to help you see the park. We will get you to all the most important places, at the right time to avoid the crowds, and we tell you exactly how to do it. You can’t go wrong!
- Our Capitol Reef Itinerary and Audio Guide is like having a personal tour guide in your car!
- Our Capitol Reef Trip Planner page will help you plan your trip.
- Where to watch a sunrise at Capitol Reef
- 9 Mistakes to avoid when visiting Capitol Reef National Park
- Utah’s Scenic Route 12: Connecting Utah’s Parks (16 Of The Best Things To Do Along The Way)